- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2019

Call it dad brain.

Studies show that becoming a father changes men’s brains in ways that help them tackle the complex tasks of being a parent, leading neuroscientists say.

“We know the brain is continually changing in life as a function of how we use it and what’s happening in our lives,” said Michael Merzenich, chief scientific officer of the Posit Science Corp. and professor emeritus at the University of California-San Francisco.

“Certainly, one of the most important things that could happen in the life of a man is fatherhood,” Mr. Merzenich said. “It’s something that’s very serious and life changing. And of course things that are very serious and life-changing amp up our brains in ways that promote substantial change and remodeling. And a lot of that’s required as we adopt these new sets of complex tasks that relate to being a dad.”

Research suggests that fatherhood could increase oxytocin (a hormone associated with social bonding) and decrease testosterone (a hormone associated with aggression) as it develops neurons and alters activity in the brain.

One study involving 160 parents living together with their first-born infants found higher oxytocin levels for fathers and mothers.

A different study involving 70 fathers and their children up to 2 years old revealed an inverse relationship between testosterone levels and caregiving.

Additionally, a study conducted on mice indicates new neurons could develop from interactions with offspring, while another study with male marmosets found larger dendritic spines of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning and decision making) in fathers compared to non-fathers.

There’s also evidence of similar parental brain activity tied to an infant’s crying that showed “greater activation in the amygdala,” which helps process emotional experiences, according to an article by Aaron Sathyanesan, a developmental neuroscientist.

“Many other studies suggest much similarity in the ways that the brains of mothers and fathers are activated in response to hearing their children cry or looking at pictures or movies of their children,” Mr. Sathyanesan wrote for CBE International. “While pregnancy hormones activate unique pathways in the brain for mothers, fathers tend to show activation in brain pathways based on experience and learning.”

Mr. Merzenich said it is difficult to measure changes in the brains of fathers because brains are always evolving. He added that researchers could do numerous experiments across the course of parenthood to measure how fathers’ brains change.

Interactions with children expand parents’ concepts of self reference, almost as if kids become a part of their fathers and mothers, Mr. Merzenich said, adding that parents are built to have longer attachments to their children.

As a dad of three daughters, he expressed how grateful he is for his children.

“What a privilege it is to be a father,” the neuroscientist said. “I know I’m a far richer person for it. It’s made me a more complete human being. It’s made me a more generous person.”

“Count your blessings and make a great day of it. And make the most of reconnecting with your children if you can do that,” Mr. Merzenich said as advice to fathers.

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